Does loyalty to one's country necessarily mean obedience to its government? Toronto novelist Guy Gavriel Kay explores the sometimes uneasy relationship between political authority and military power in his satisfying new historical fantasy River of Stars.
An award-winning author and former Winnipegger, Kay has already created worlds reflecting the Italian Renaissance (Tigana), Viking-age England (Last Light of the Sun) and medieval France (A Song for Arbonne), among others.
In River of Stars, Kay returns to Kitai, his fictionalized China, in which his 2010 novel Under Heaven was set. This novel takes place centuries later. Kitai has lost 14 northern prefectures, now ruled by the ascending Xiaolu empire (whom the Kitan people still consider barbarians), that weigh heavily on the national psyche.
Unfortunately, while the sheltered Emperor Wenzong drains his country's resources to build a sumptuous garden, his army is unable to manage the most basic of campaigns.
Thanks to fears of a military rebellion, Kitan emperors have kept the country's massive military largely incompetent. This is driven home when, in attempting to lay siege to a western "barbarian" city, in the Kislik empire, the Kitan forces somehow forget to bring siege engines and are routed and destroyed.
In his author's note, Kay acknowledges that River of Stars is inspired by events from China's Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). But while he infuses his world with a powerful sense of history, you don't need to have studied China nor have read Under Heaven to enjoy it.
The sprawling story follows complex court intrigues, in which rival factions struggle viciously for political power. But Kay focuses mainly on two unlikely heroes.
Ren Daiyan was meant to pursue a career in the civil service, like all hoping to rise in social station, but dreams of becoming a great warrior and retaking the lost Kitan territories. His life takes a new course when he is trapped by outlaws in the forest and, after killing his attackers, becomes an outlaw himself.
Lin Shan is nearly as much a social oddity, since her father has taught her to read and write, and she applies her talents to poetry and literature, all of which is discouraged for women of class. She becomes a target for politically driven assassination, and, just as scandalously, she survives.
Kay's fast-moving, engrossing tale brings Daiyan and Shan together and then drives them apart.
By calling in a favour and jumping through a few hoops, Daiyan attains a military command. He quickly grasps there is a new threat to Kitai that the emperor and his court gravely underestimate.
And Shan, ostracized for her politically dangerous poetry -- which paradoxically endears her to the emperor -- finds herself ever more isolated at a decadent court that is in more danger than anyone else realizes.
Daiyan's military prowess saves Kitai from disaster, but his success and hunger for conquest clashes with the hard diplomatic decisions made by his emperor.
Daiyan's old ally, a trusted magistrate, privately sums up the dilemma to Daiyan's second-in-command: "Our friend has a decision to make. We are living through one of the oldest stories in Kitai .... If he refuses to withdraw he is in open rebellion as of today. All of you are. Our fear of our own soldiers made real."
Kay provides no easy answers for his characters, and provokes readers to form their own opinions.
Despite our democratic distaste for military rule, in this novel you just may root for the army commander to seize power.
David Jón Fuller is a Winnipeg writer and editor.